Peru's potatoes saved by science

After years of blight and scarcity, Andean farmers are now producing a spud harvest on par with the US.

This colonial town of adobe homes with tiled roofs is nestled in a lush valley in the shadows of the icy Andes. And until a few years ago it also lived under the ever encroaching shadow of agricultural scarcity.

What was at risk? The humble spud - a staple of the local diet.

Even though potatoes are indigenous to Peru, the campesino farmers from this area were having little luck with their potato crops a decade ago. They were weathering a drought and repeatedly getting stiffed with shipments of useless, blighted and virus-infested potato seeds.

Today, things are quite different along the slopes and folds of the local mountains. Thanks to a cutting-edge planting method and the assistance of an Italian charity, the Chacas Catholic parish now harvests a thriving potato crop and is able to give sustenance to the poor. A patchwork of fields are now densely dotted with the tiny purple flowers of potato plants.

"Before ... we had to buy our potatoes because we had nothing to eat," says Hugo Terazona, a campesino farmer whose sun- and wind-weathered face disguises his 2O-something youth. "Now we always have potatoes, and we are protected because we have [them] for the whole year...."

This dramatic change is largely due to the assistance the International Potato Center (CIP) has given Operation Mato Grosso, a group of Italian volunteers who work through the local parish. The CIP, a Lima-based agricultural-research organization, has rescued the Chacas farmers with its new method of seed production.

"We have demonstrated that there is an alternative for propagating potatoes in a much cheaper way," says CIP scientist Nol Pallais. "This is a gigantic change for a crop that was domesticated 8,000 years ago...."

Indeed, the Chacas parish now spends three times less on crops and produces six times as many potatoes. Their 86,000 tons per acre each year is on par with yields in the US and in Europe. In addition to feeding hundreds of people every day, they are producing enough potato seeds to distribute to nearby campesino communities.

All over the world, potatoes are grown by planting tubers that produce genetically identical plants, or clones. This method takes a very long time, and has many steps, each of which leave the potato prone to pathogens - especially in tropical climates. In the late 1970s, CIP started researching a new method of potato propagation which uses a "true potato seed" (TPS).

With this process, the hundreds of minuscule seeds in the berry of a pollinated potato flower are planted in seedbeds. They then grow into plants and produce tubers, which are then planted directly in the fields. With TPSs, it takes fewer seeds to produce a higher yield.

Campesinos in Chacas are now growing a TPS potato developed at CIP in the early 1990s, which the Chacas parish has proudly christened "Chacasina." This potato is a cross between a tasty local potato and the less-epicurean potato CIP scientists developed for disease resistance.

This technology actually has roots in pre-Columbian Peru. Scientists believe that at the time when the Spaniards arrived here over 500 years ago, the Incas had already begun researching the benefits of planting with TPSs.

Dr. Pallais has been distributing Chacasina TPSs for free all over Peru and receiving rave reports from the beneficiaries. Potatoes produced this way are ideal for subsistence farmers and disaster-relief organizations, because they are cheaper and produce potatoes faster. CIP scientists came to the aid of farmers in Honduras and Nicaragua by showing them how to use TPSs after Hurricane Mitch had leveled their crops.

Recently, the CIP has branched out into some other promising potato projects - namely, returning ancient and forgotten varieties to the table.

All over the world, people eat large, white, smooth-skinned potatoes that come from one species of potato. In Peru, however, there were once thousands of varieties in in yellows, reds, and purples - with a taste-bud boggling spectrum of flavors.

Over the past decades most of these potatoes have disappeared. "We used to have many kinds of potatoes that had delicious tastes and were really pretty," says campesino Santiago Rodriguez. Taking a break from tilling with a wooden hoe, he continues, "But then the blight started coming and took them all."

Fortunately, about 40 years ago, CIP scientists combed the hillsides of Peru's Andes and collected 3,500 varieties of native potatoes. The world's official repository of potato plants, CIP started working with these samples a few years ago.

Pallais believes he will be able to develop new varieties with some of the positive characteristics of native potatoes. One of those (besides flavor) is a longer root network - enabling the potatoes to grow with less irrigation water, an increasingly scarce resource.

The farmers are also reintroducing these native potatoes to the Andes. Just last week, CIP sent a variety of native potato plants to Chacas. Now that potatoes are again plentiful, parish officials say they can attend to the demands of the palate.

"You could eat the native potatoes without salt, without anything," recalls Mr. Rodriguez.

"We would be proud to have back the old potatoes we ate when we were younger."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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